New Ultrathin Flexible Film Establishes Direct Link Between Real and Virtual World

Scientists at Saarland University have developed an ultrathin flexible film that can function as a sensor for ground-breaking technologies. The new sensory film is incorporated within a glove and can communicate the current position of the wearer’s hand and fingers.

Man and machine can, quite literally, work together by creating a direct link between the virtual and real working worlds. This has been realized by the research team headed by Professor Stefan Seelecke by using smart silicone films. Another objective of the study is to help the wearer of the glove by sending tactile signals, such as vibrations or pulses, that are generated by the polymer film.

The group of engineers will be at Hannover Messe from the April 1st to 5th, 2019 at the Saarland Research and Innovation Stand (Hall 2, Stand B46), where they will be exhibiting the prototype glove and searching for partners with whom they can build up the technology for practical applications.

For instance, an assembly operator finds that they have used the wrong component, and they now have to dismantle the whole thing that they had assembled earlier. This is time-consuming and leads to production delays. This situation might not have taken place if the computer had been able to point out the error while the operator was picking the component from the storage bin.

However, the computer was totally unaware of the mistake. This information can now be made available to the computer system using a smart glove created by a team of engineers headed by Stefan Seelecke at Saarland University. Together with smart glasses, the glove can offer personalized assistance to assembly line workers or service technicians whose work is to assemble or repair complicated devices or systems—thus preventing potentially expensive errors.

The scientists have taken a highly flexible, ultra-lightweight film composed of an elastic polymer and have transformed it into an adaptable sensory organ for a range of technical applications. The can line a glove with the polymer film to establish a man-machine interface without using heavy sensors or cameras—everything is achieved with an ultrathin plastic film that is not sensed by the wearer and that does not limit them when performing their task.

The film we use is known as a dielectric elastomer. And the glove essentially functions as a flexible sensor.

Professor Stefan Seelecke, Intelligent Material Systems Lab, Saarland University

Professor Stefan Seelecke is the head of research teams at Intelligent Material Systems Lab and ZeMA (Center for Mechatronics and Automation Technology) in Saarbrücken.

Either side of the silicone film is printed with an electrically conducting material. On applying a voltage to the film, the ensuing electrostatic attractive forces make the film to constrict, expanding the film sideways and thereby increasing its surface area, which in turn changes the film’s electrical capacitance of. This property effectively turns the film into a sensor.

We can assign a precise electrical capacitance value to any particular position of the film.

Steffen Hau, PhD engineer, Saarland University

Thus, the engineers can know at any time just how a finger is pulling, expanding, or constricting the film. With the help of the algorithms, the team can calculate these motion sequences in a control unit and then process the results with a computer.

For the next phase of the development process, the scientists wish to enable the glove to communicate directly with the wearer, via tactile signals like vibrations or pulses, which would be felt by the fingers of the wearer. “The computer could then send, for instance, a pulsed signal to the operator’s fingertips to tell them ‘You’ve taken the wrong component’, or a vibrating signal to confirm ‘That is the right component’,” explained Steffen Hau.

In addition to being a sensor, the thin silicone film can also be made to vibrate or pulse whenever required or to take up any desired shape. The scientists can accurately control their silicone film and can continuously change the frequency of its motion as required, from high-frequency vibrations down to a slow pulsing or flexing motion. In future, this highly responsive film could be used to prevent technicians or assembly operators from taking the wrong element from sorting bins.

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